(Published on November 30, 2014 by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates)
Holiday anxiety. It means what to do with the fur-trimmed t-shirt from your cube mate or the ceramic armadillo Chanukah gift from Aunt Esther in Texas. Or selecting gifts for those “people who have everything” inevitably on your list.
Gift giving can be so much better — and more personal — if the present is delicious and made by yours truly.
“One of the wonderful things about food is the ephemeral nature of it. I think it’s the ideal gift,” notes Rachel Saunders, founder of the Blue Chair Fruit Company in Oakland, known for spectacular jams and marmalades.
While buying products from Blue Chair and other artisanal producers makes an easy gifting solution, a more meaningful approach is homemade goodies based on terrific recipes from Saunders and other pros.
To that end, consult “Blue Chair Cooks with Jam & Marmalade” (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $45; October 2014), Saunders’ second cookbook, bursting with 150 recipes that include savory and sweet items for every meal plus beverages.
Another excellent source of tested, enticing recipes for gifting is “Better from Scratch” (Weldon Owen Publishing; $24.95; July, 2014) by cooking instructor and author Ivy Manning, which includes a slew of kitchen staples, condiments, snacks and treats such as homemade energy bars, crackers and spreads. Besides tasting great, such food gifts are free of preservatives, artificial flavors and excessive salt and sugar.
Saunders and Manning don’t just develop recipes, they’re committed to giving homemade holiday gifts themselves. Saunders’ go-to gift is — believe it or not — fruitcake. “People think fruitcake is disgusting,” she says, until they taste a great one like the nut- and spice-stuffed recipes in her book.
Since Saunders’ gifting philosophy “is to always expand their horizons slightly but not take them way out of their comfort zone,” she gravitates toward amped-up versions of classics like Linzertorte — but with the novel, exciting addition of tomato jam — and banana bread. The latter sings through the use of her mother’s addictive, buttery, slow-roasted pecans — a great gift on their own — that she calls “the most pecan-y pecan.”
According to Saunders, “What’s nice about banana bread and fruitcake is that you can do mini loaves. They’re perfect. You can put them into a cellophane bag with a little bow on it and there you go.” For her pecans, nutty granola and cookies, she favors pretty tins available from cake and crafts stores.
Manning is also an inveterate homemade gift giver, spending time in her kitchen rather than at the big-box store. “When you’re making a gift, it’s kind of like saying, ‘I care about you, so I’m giving you some of my time,'” she explains.
It also helps that her recipes are easy and supremely tasty. “And because you call the shots, you can get creative with the seasonings and personalize gifts,” she notes, such as her homemade kimchi.” I make (it) extra spicy for my friend Cathie because she’s a chile head,” Manning says.
In the hot realm, the sriracha chile sauce in her book is a hit. “The flavor is much more multi dimensional,” she says. “It’s not all Godzilla-hot and nothing else. There is heat, yes, but fruity notes, a tingling from the fermentation, earthiness.”
Like her sriracha, “Better from Scratch” has many recipes for improved-upon items usually found at the supermarket, like better-ingredients versions of Nutella, caramel corn, layered mint chocolates (those rectangles covered in green foil) and wonderful cheesy homemade crackers. Her multi-spice pickled cocktail onions have thrilled home bartenders, she reports. “It really does make a great martini when you’ve got a great onion.”
Manning recommends that home cooks be aware of allergies and preferences before selecting a food gift to make. She also suggests that gift givers, “Write a tag that explains what it is you are giving them and how to store it” and include a recipe, if that will enhance enjoyment.
Not surprisingly, both cookbook authors love to get food gifts as well as give them, particularly those incorporating hard-to-find or home-grown ingredients. But having acknowledged expertise can intimidate would-be gift givers, says Saunders. When it comes to cooking for a pro, “a lot of times, people are frightened to, which is really sad,” she says.
To see recipes, go here (see box on right side).